Should you choose to venture online - whether using a Virtual Pro or not - it's as robust as it was last year, although there's room for improvement. You still can't select your team's line-up and formation before being paired with another player, for example, which usually adds a couple of minutes' set-up to any encounter. With few people playing online before release, it's not possible to gauge how well new features like Virtual Pro integrate into Pro Club mode, sadly, and it's also important to note that EA doesn't have a spotless record fixing exploits, despite FIFA's vast popularity, although with any luck the improved core gameplay will prove less vulnerable to things like last year's Custom Tactics mischief. One good bit of news is that Be A Pro matches can now be set to have five human players rather than 10, so you can use an AI defence.
The third pillar of FIFA, if you like, behind Exhibition and online ranked matches, is Manager Mode, and FIFA 10 had promised to finally show it some love, although EA's ambition to achieve a base level of authenticity will have to wait at least another year. With my first 2009/10 season as Liverpool barely six games old, Manchester United were rooted to the bottom of the Premiership and I'd re-signed Xabi Alonso from Real Madrid in the same window Rafa Benitez sold him (I was perfectly happy with both scenarios, naturally, but it's not very realistic). Exotic, completely ridiculous signings (Fabregas to Fulham!) are less prevalent, and there's better menuing, but there's still a long road ahead for EA's designers.
The Set-Piece Creator, accessible through the back-button menu in Arena, is also a bit of a work-in-progress. You select a section of the pitch near the opposing goal and can record elaborate routines involving multiple runners, but your plans are often upset by the fact you seldom earn a free-kick in the exact position you planned for. Moving even a few feet away can upset timings and positions, and while defensive players adapt, your colleagues generally don't.
What's more, AI-controlled teams are still a bit too risk-averse for my liking - you'll never get Rio Ferdinand trying to scoop the ball over a Manchester City striker in the last minute, even though recent form suggests he might try it once in a blue moon. And as with every football game ever, there are a few patterns starting to emerge (the ball hits the post less often, thank goodness, but chip shots which the keeper tips round the post are a prominent fixture), and legacy issues familiar to football game fans still linger, like buffered button-presses punting the ball away just when you really need to keep it.
There's more for EA Canada to do, in other words. There can always be a greater variety of outcomes to any given situation, control can always be tighter and more agile, with greater degrees of flexibility, and the holy grail of a believable football season using real clubs and players, with just the right level of unpredictability, is still a ways off. But, having convincingly overtaken its main rival last year, FIFA 10 nevertheless consolidates its lead with great authority. Last year, I said FIFA feels like football, rewards football, and punishes football for football reasons. The difference between FIFA 09 and FIFA 10 is that the latter knows exactly where the former fell short of that, and makes up the distance in almost every case.